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    Entries in Spiritual Formation (36)


    Book Review: Tish Harrison Warren's Liturgy of the Ordinary

    All too often I hear stories from Christians who experience life apart from the mystery and delight that flows from trusting in the promises of God’s ongoing, everyday presence and companionship. Daylight breaks and routines unfold until the moment the sun hides again beyond the horizon. Another day is put in the books. The calendar turns, and the years pass. After a while, life comes to be described as “just one damned thing after another.”

    Sadly, I have shared these assumptions about life, and God’s workings and ways within it, failing to perceive the unending possibilities immediately before me for love, grace, and the overwhelming tide of the holy.

    That is why it is so refreshing when I encounter a book like Tish Harrison Warren’s Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life. Warren, a priest in the Anglican Church in North America, has allowed the practice of Christian worship to reshape her imagination and adjust her eyesight, renewing her vision in the everyday. Through engaging storytelling, clear prose, and acute theological reflection, she invites us to see our days not as mundane and meaningless, but as the arena of the eternal and the sacred. We join God upon his playground, as well as in his workshop, and we are his friends and co-laborers. Our play and our work is not profane, but is the very place where our redemption is actualized.

    The structure of her book is very simple. Warren walks us through a single day, from waking until sleeping. She writes, “How I spend an ordinary day in Christ is how I will spend my Christian life.” She considers her everyday chores and routines, things like making the bed and brushing her teeth, and how these actions remind us of how our lives are shaped, and how we are mortal, embodied creatures. She considers our need for confession, faces the reality of friction in our closest relationships, and contemplates the gift that is a good meal. She takes up the bane that email can be, and often is, and reframes it as but one aspect of vocational holiness. She reflects on time, community, pleasure, and sabbath and explores their meaning for us as human beings. There are no empty calories in this book. Every sentence is a hearty morsel, amounting to a wholesome meal.

    The book also includes a bonus: questions for discussion to accompany each chapter, as well as suggested practices to help the reader become more aware of God’s presence.

    I rarely dish out such high praise, even for books that I like. But I found this book so surprisingly fresh, and so creative, that I cannot help but gush. Consider your days, and, like Warren, allow the practice of worship to reshape how it is that you see. Discover that God’s holiness is abundant and present in every task that we undertake as his servants and friends. God does not remake us into the image of his Son apart from the kitchen, the cubicle, or the park. He meets us where we are. He works in our midst. He speaks in a thousand tongues, and with no sound at all.

    Attune your senses, and open your heart. God is present and active, unfolding his mystery in this moment, and the next. Warren can help us pay heed to the Spirit, to respond to the holy, and to walk with the Son. Take up and read. This is a great book.


    Review: A Spirituality of Listening

    When we imagine a person who is mature in Christ we think of someone persistent in action and filled with spiritual wisdom. We think of the words they say or the work they do. We associate that person with love, joy, patience, kindness, and other virtues. Only in rare cases do we think of the person who listens.

    But listening is the ground and starting point for the development of the person who is spiritually wise and mature.

    In A Spirituality of Listening: Living What We Hear (IVP Formatio, 2016), Keith Anderson argues for the practice of listening. We live in an age of distraction, overpopulated with words and filled with frenetic activity. We live at a time when people long for a word from God. There is restlessness and anxiety in both world and church.

    But God has spoken. God is speaking. We have failed to listen. “Be still,” the psalmist writes, “and know that I am God.”

    Hearing a word from God is often associated with esoteric religious experiences. But Anderson argues for a different account of the spiritual life and a different reading of the Bible. Anderson writes, “My claim is simple: spirituality is grounded in ordinary life experiences. We need to learn to listen to rhythms of life, narratives and creation. I also make a more complex claim: Jesus learned to know God through biblical forms still available to us.”

    Anderson merges two ideas. We encounter God in the everyday, and Jesus is the one who shows us how to listen. It is through Jesus-style listening that we come to know God.

    Anderson writes:

    Biblical spirituality says there is still a source that reveals the voice of the living God. It asserts that God is not done with the business of revelation and creation but instead continues to have something to say and something yet to be accomplished in the very culture that isn't sure if God is done speaking.

    Anderson writes of the creation, the commonplace, the Bible, and specifically the Psalms as locations where God is revealing himself. Anderson writes about Hebrew spirituality and Israel’s call to listen, found in Deuteronomy 6:4. He explores the prophetic voice, the cry of lament, and the example of Jesus as crucial points of investigation that help us become attuned to God’s manner of speaking.

    In his final chapter, Anderson explores otherness, community, and God’s diverse vehicles for bringing a word. Anderson states, “We aren't much good at listening to otherness--different languages, worldviews, ages, genders, sexualities, abilities, demographics, religions or philosophies.” It is not easy to listen to those who are different.

    Anderson sees our differences as akin to accent. He writes, “Learning to listen to God also means learning to listen to those who listen to God in ways that are unfamiliar or just different than my way.” I am from East Texas. I am well versed in sounding funny. And there are plenty of Christians (and people, for that matter) who sound like Yankees to me.

    Learning to listen to those who are different, those who are other, is one of the great challenges of Anderson’s book.

    Another challenge concerns God’s manner of speaking and how we come to listen to God’s voice. Anderson writes much of the commonplace as the domain of God’s revelation. There is truth in that claim. God teaches us within the context of our lives as they are lived today.

    But there is also the Bible. And therein lies the tension. Learning to hear God in the commonplace is best conducted when the experiences of everyday life are filtered through the biblical narrative. How God speaks to us in and through the Bible is a matter of theological debate. But it is through the words of Scripture that God has spoken and is speaking; it is as though an eternal, timeless voice echoes through the ages and comes to us as a word presently spoken.

    Listening is indispensable for spiritual formation in Christ. We cannot become mature Christians without learning how to listen. Jesus not only is our Savior, he is also our Teacher. Teachers instruct by example, but also through words. He is the Good Shepherd. Hearing his call to “come” is accompanied by his invitation to “follow.” In the words of the old hymn:

    Take up thy cross and follow me,
    I heard my Master say.
    I gave my life to ransom thee,
    Surrender your all today.

    Wherever he leads, I’ll go.

    But first, as Anderson reminds us, we must listen.


    The Turning of the Seasons

    Easter rests over the horizon.

    The seasons change.

    Fall, winter, spring, and summer. Or Advent, Christmastide, Ordinary Time, and Lent. Easter (celebrated as a season, not a day), followed by Pentecost and, once again, Ordinary Time. Christ the King Sunday concludes the year, and Advent begins again.

    As time goes on, and as my life continues to be defined by the rhythms of the church, the calendar increases in significance. Not the four seasons, per se, but rather, the story of God as it is given in Scripture and as it is told within the life of the congregation. To be acquainted with "the whole counsel of God" (Acts 20:27) requires discipline, and intention. A plan. Christmas and Easter are helpful anchor points, but there is so much more to tell. And we are so forgetful. Now and again, it is good to look up and be reminded of where we stand in the year.

    Presently, we are approaching the fifth Sunday in the season of Lent. This is a time in which we are reminded to repent of our sins, and to intensify our focus upon discipleship to Jesus. There's never a bad time to repent, or to follow Christ. In fact, that is the daily calling of the Christian. But, lest we forget these essentials, it is good to be reminded, and the calendar can be an aid.

    For a Baptist kid from East Texas to be familiar with the liturgical calendar, much less to appreciate it, is quite strange. Growing up, we celebrated Christmas and Easter as special days. And I'm thankful for this. I'm also thankful that for the remainder of the year, we focused our congregational energies on one or more books of the Bible, and walked through the text as a congregation. The Word was preached as the people gathered for worship, and the saints were equipped for ministry. This is good. 

    On Christmas Eve, we celebrated the Lord's Supper, silently, listening to great hymns of the faith and solemnly observing one of the two ordinances. There were no cell phones to turn off, only rowdy children to corral. During the time of year in which we remember the coming of God in the flesh, the celebration of the incarnation, we reminded ourselves of the purpose for which Christ had come: to redeem sinners from the power of death, and to usher in the kingdom of God. Christ did not only come to die. The gospel is even richer than that. But the fact that he did die to redeem sinners is a pivot point in the story, inseparable as it is from his resurrection, and his incarnation. The story of Christ doesn't fit in a nutshell, and cannot be captured in a soundbite, try as we might.

    On Easter we sang our most jubilant songs, celebrating the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Among the many things that formed me, the congregational call and response of "He is risen! He is risen, indeed!" was immensely compelling. In my congregation, over a thousand men and women spoke these words with conviction and power, and my heart swelled with hope, and my faith in the gospel grew.

    But we didn't celebrate the seasons, or other formal church holidays or feasts. And that's OK. Paul, perplexed by believers in Galatia who he thought had gone adrift, writes in Galatians 4:10 that they had been observing "special days and seasons and years." He openly worried his efforts had been wasted. I can sympathize with Paul sometimes.

    In the text I've cited, some think Paul was speaking against formal, routine observances of the liturgical type, maybe even a special Christian calendar. I don't think so. I think something else was going on in the first century. While it's true that formal observances can devolve into dead religiosity, correlation does not imply causation. Some of the most free flowing, spontaneous Christian gatherings can be just as Spirit-depleted as a high mass. Showmanship is not a denominationally specific vice. And the Spirit blows where it will.

    Now, I am in a context that celebrates the season of Advent. And we celebrate Holy Week. We emphasize Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and pull out all the stops for Easter.

    In youth ministry, we widen the lens just a little, and at least name the beginning of the season of Lent. We don't have an Ash Wednesday service, but we spend about six Wednesdays in a gospel. This year, we have studied the Gospel of John. We read John 1, and contemplated Jesus's coming as the Logos, "the Word," "the meaning of life." We contemplated John 3, and asked what it means to be "born again." We read in John 6 about Jesus miraculously feeding 5,000 men, plus women and children, and considered how with God, there is an abundance of grace and love. And tonight, we turn to John 11.

    In John 11, we read the story of Jesus and his friend Lazarus. Jesus makes one of his famous "I am" statements, declaring himself, "the resurrection and the life." There is no greater hope. Jesus rages at death in this narrative, and calls Lazarus forth. Why does Jesus do this? The key is found in verse 15. Jesus tells his disciples that Lazarus has died, and that he is glad he was not there. Jesus says this was so, "so that you may believe."

    Each week, I walk with people who are diverse in their outlook and convictions. Some are people of strong faith, who only wish to please God with their lives. They are a mess like all of us, a bag of mixed motives, guilty of missteps. But their heart is inclined toward God. There are some who oscillate between belief and unbelief. And then there are those who are plagued by their doubts. And each week, I join them as a brother in Christ, and speak to them the Word of God. And the Spirit blows where it will.

    Of course, my hope is that they would hear and believe. That they would consider the cross (Good Friday!) and believe that on Sunday, the tomb was found empty ("He is risen!"). Then, I pray that they would follow Christ, through fall, winter, spring, and summer, and then again through Advent, Christmastide, Ordinary Time, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, and Ordinary Time. And as the years pass, I pray that they would mark out the time by how they have grown in faith, and the good things God has done, and the comfort they found when the passed through a valley. That's what I pray for, anyway. That thing about the Spirit holds true, once again.

    As we approach Easter, I pray that God would bless you, and that you would walk in the way of Christ, that the time you have been given would be defined, first and foremost, by Christ and his love. 

    This essay originally appeared in my (mostly) monthly eNewsletter update. You can subscribe at my About page. Thanks for reading.


    Apologetics is for Everyone

    Now notice the assumption in the charter that apologetics is for everyone. It is for everyone precisely because it simply calls upon a very natural human ability that we each have--reason. We are to submit that ability to God, so that he might fill it with his Spirit and use it as he uses all of our other natural abilities.

    - Dallas Willard, The Allure of Gentleness: Defending the Faith in the Manner of Jesus, 33

    As a Christian discipline, apologetics is the work of offering a defense of the faith. Dallas Willard is one of my favorite apologists. And he believes every Christian is called to the work of apologetics.

    Willard's approach differs from the common notion of apologetics, without devaluing those presenting logical arguments concerning science, ethics, the reliability of the Bible, or other such matters.

    Willard argues strongly for the context of apologetics being that of a remarkable life that raises questions in need of answering, whether immediately or over the course of years. Willard writes, "I wish many of my colleagues in the work of apologetics would emblazon [these words] on their forehead: 'With Gentleness and Reverence.'" Willard is quoting 1 Peter 3:15-16, a bedrock text for apologetics.

    So often, Christians conclude that the work of apologetics is restricted to the specialist. But Willard says no, it is for every Christian, and it can be done by every Christian. Loving God heart, soul, strength, and mind are possible. Jesus commanded us to do so. He does not command anything he will not assist us in attaining by his grace. Therefore, for those who will become his students, Jesus will help us love God with our minds.

    Have you ever wondered how you love God with your mind? You do it by focusing your mind on him and by submitting all of your powers of mind to him so that he might use them. We use our mind to think seriously about the message he has given us in scripture and in creation, and we teach others to do the same; that's how we love him with our mind.

    Willard writes, "Apologetics is not a contest of any kind, with winners and losers. It is a loving service. It is the finding of answers to strengthen faith."

    Such an apologetics is rooted in the eternal kind of life Jesus has made possible. It is an apologetics of kingdom citizenry, established in an unshakeable hope. More answers are there for the offering, for those who are spokespersons for Christ.

    Apologetics goes beyond the technical. It begins in the everyday. In the grocery line. Mopping floors. Preparing a meal. Having a conversation.

    Apologetics is for everyone.


    To Laugh in the Midst of Trial

    Lord, to laugh in the midst of trial and to rejoice in the darkest valley is another way of saying, "Our hope is in you." Fill us with laughter and joy while we work for peace and strive for justice. Amen.

    --From Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals, Morning Prayer for 1/27